Photo © Courtesy of Water.org
Matt Damon’s global perspective was formed years before his movie career began. During a trip with his mother in the early 1980s, Damon saw what life was like for people living in developing countries—how they lacked the basic necessities that he was so used to. Those experiences followed him through his early life, leading him to Sub-Saharan Africa, where, while filming a movie, he spent time with families in a Zambian village. He saw the same reality that he recognized so many years ago, inspiring his commitment to helping solve the global water crisis.
In 2006, he founded H20 Africa Foundation to raise awareness about safe water initiatives on the continent. Three years later, Matt Damon met Gary White, an engineer and water and sanitation expert from Kansas City. White was the founder of WaterPartners International, an American non-profit organization that aimed to provide safe water and sanitation to people in developing countries. Realizing the incredible impact the two could make, H20 Africa and WaterPartners merged to create Water.org. Now, Water.org empowers people around the world with access to safe water and sanitation. To date, they’ve helped change more than 31 million lives.
“Access to water is access to education, access to work, access above all to the kind of future we want for our own families and all the members of our human family.” —Matt Damon Co-founder, Water.org
We virtually sat down with Matt to ask him what inspired his passion to ensure access to clean water for all, how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the progress of solving the water crisis, and what we can do to help.
Traveling with your mother in the late ’80s, you were exposed to poverty in developing countries, which led to your commitment to help solve the global water crisis. Why water? Why Gary White?
Matt: I couldn’t ignore the fact that, in the villages I visited, most of the families lacked the same basic necessity—water. The lack of it dictated how people spent their days. Time spent finding and collecting it determined what else they could or could not do. Access to water is something we can easily take for granted in the States. To see people living in the water crisis at such a young age really impacted the way I came to view the world and helped me see the role I wanted to play in changing it.
When I heard about how Gary White was working to empower people in need with safe water and sanitation through small, affordable loans, I was interested. After meeting him, I saw for myself how powerful this was for people living in poverty, and I knew this innovation, this solution Gary came up with was going to scale…and it has. We have reached more than 31 million people to date with access to safe water or sanitation, and each year this approach proves its efficiency as we change more lives, faster.
Since the inception of Water.org, you and your co-founder Gary White’s solution to the water crisis has evolved with a focus on sustainable actions like WaterCredit. Can you elaborate on the effectiveness of this approach?
We’ve found that millions of people in poverty are already paying high prices for water—in time spent collecting it or money to pay for temporary access. They do this because they can’t pay for a water connection or toilet all at once, but, if given the opportunity, they can afford to finance the solutions. That’s why we created WaterCredit. WaterCredit makes small loans for water and sanitation possible for these families. Rather than coming up with, say, $150 at once, they’re able to make small, affordable loan payments over time, giving their families the taps and toilets they need immediately. And the repayment rate is incredible. The people we serve are repaying their loans at a 99 percent repayment rate.
With millions affected across the world, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to the global water crisis. Our approach is market-driven and people-driven. It’s why and how we’ve reached more than 31 million people with access to water or sanitation, 8 million in the last year alone.
The COVID-19 pandemic has further worsened the living conditions and health of millions of people in both developed and developing countries, with no clear end in sight. What is needed to ensure the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 6, call for clean water and sanitation for all by 2030, is met? Is it still possible?
Water makes handwashing and hygiene possible, and washing your hands, as we’ve all been told, is a first line of defence against viruses like COVID-19. The problem is that not everyone everywhere has access to the water needed for this simple and powerful act. Even before this pandemic, we knew achieving Sustainable Development Goal 6 would take more than the amount of funding the world is currently contributing to solving the global water crisis. Closing this financing gap and achieving safe water and sanitation for all is possible, and I think Water.org is well-poised to help the global community get there, especially in a time when access to water is needed more than ever.
You have seen first-hand how access to clean water changes lives. Is there one moment or one person who affirmed your passion to provide everyone with access to clean water in your lifetime?
While I was filming a movie in Sub-Saharan Africa, I spent time with families in a Zambian village. They lacked access to water and toilets. I was reminded of what I saw as a kid in Guatemala—like the families in Guatemala, the entire days’ activities of the women and children in Zambia were dictated by the water crisis. From waking early to walk to find water, to spending hours carrying it back home—the multiple trips, the daily struggle, the illnesses—I knew I had to do something meaningful to help end the water crisis for these families and families around the world.
Why should water for all be everyone’s business?
Through my work as an actor and my work as a co-founder of Water.org, I’ve travelled around the world and have seen firsthand the critical role water can play in improving lives. Water is everyone’s business because it underpins so many social issues. Whether you care about children’s health, women’s empowerment, the education of girls, or improving economies—access to safe water is the answer.
Women, children, economies, and the health of our world rely on access to safe water. By giving to Water.org, people can help prevent the spread of diseases today and support the health of our world tomorrow.
What has been the most gratifying moment throughout your work with Water.org?
Every time I meet the people we serve, and they share how their lives have changed since getting access to safe water or a toilet at home is gratifying. Their stories motivate and inspire me. For example, when I was in the Philippines last year, I met a woman named Zeny. Zeny finds scrap metal and wood and sells it, and her husband is a moto-taxi driver. Together, they make less than $3 a day. They used to spend more than 15 percent of their income to buy water from a neighbor because they couldn’t afford to pay for their own water connection. Families like this are why we do what we do at Water.org. They work so hard, and they have so much potential. We make small, affordable loans possible for people like Zeny and her husband so they can give their families a lasting safe water solution at home. When you empower families in need with access to safe water, you empower them to break their cycle of poverty.
Solving the global water crisis is not a one-person job. What can each of us do to help?
Donate to Water.org. Our organization is reaching families in poverty with access to safe water and sanitation every day, and our solutions are smart, lasting, and cost-efficient. For a donation of $5, you can help give one person access to safe water and the health, hope, and resilience that comes with it.